WICHITA EAGLE: Brownback’s proposed changes to children’s programs face resistance

By Bryan Lowry
February 3, 2016

Gov. Sam Brownback’s proposal to move money earmarked for children’s programs faced strong opposition from parents’ groups and children’s advocates at a budget hearing Wednesday.

Republican lawmakers also questioned the wisdom of the proposed changes to early childhood programs, which were highlighted as being some of the state’s most transparent and efficient in a recent study paid for by the Legislature.

The governor’s proposed budget for fiscal 2017, which begins July 1, would sweep $50.6 million from the Children’s Initiatives Fund, money earmarked for children’s programs, into the state’s general fund.

Childhood programs would still be fully funded, but children’s advocates say this change could jeopardize long-term funding for the programs if the state faces another budget shortfall in the future.

The governor’s office said in an e-mail that it crafted the plan through conversations with education officials and that total funding for childhood programs would surpass the amount swept.

The only person to testify in favor of the governor’s proposed budget Wednesday before the House Appropriations Committee was Education Commissioner Randy Watson. Under the governor’s proposal, childhood programs spread across various agencies would be moved to the Kansas Department of Education, which Watson said would allow for better coordination.

“We’re trying to break down those walls to serve kids and families … and not throw up barriers,” Watson told the committee.

Hale Ritchie, board development chair for Rainbows United in Wichita, an organization that works with special-needs children, raised concern that the Department of Education would lack the expertise to run Tiny K, a program for developmentally disabled children now run by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

Rep. Will Carpenter, R-El Dorado, asked Watson if the Department of Education had drafted a plan for how it would absorb Tiny K and other programs.

Watson responded that it hadn’t formally drafted a plan, considering that to be premature until lawmakers approve the governor’s proposal. Carpenter responded that perhaps it would be premature for lawmakers to approve the proposal until a plan was drafted.

Rep. Amanda Grosserode, R-Lenexa, on the other hand, said she found it odd to have childhood programs run by agencies other than the Department of Education. She compared that to the Kansas Department Health and Environment running a transportation program.

Several parents and advocates also objected to the governor’s plan to make Parents as Teachers, an early childhood program that is currently free to all parents, available to parents based on their means to pay. This would allow the program, now supported by the Children’s Initiatives Fund, to be paid for by federal dollars.

The governor would allow families at 200 percent of the federal poverty level – an income of $48,500 for a family of four – to continue to participate for free. Parents above that threshold would have to pay to participate, at a cost of more than $1,100 per child.

Jacki Himpel, the Parents as Teachers coordinator for the Kansas City, Kan., school district, said this would disqualify more than 70 percent of the parents involved in the program.

Kelli Owens, a woman who works in the Capitol’s snack bar, told the committee how she learned that her daughter was legally blind after Parents as Teachers referred her to a free vision test four months ago.

Owens said that her family would be disqualified by the means test and that she would not be able to afford the program on her own.

Transportation

Another area of the governor’s budget facing scrutiny is the proposed sweep of $25 million from the state’s highway fund.

Michael Johnston, a former state transportation secretary who now serves as CEO of Economic Lifelines, a group that promotes transportation projects, said that Brownback has swept more than $1 billion from the Kansas Department of Transporation in the past six year. At the same time, the agency has borrowed $1 billion through bonds.

“What started out as a head cold a few years ago turned into the flu and now it’s morphed into a full-blown epidemic,” Johnston said.

KDOT Secretary Mike King said in an e-mail that the agency has issued $500 million less in bonds than was anticipated when lawmakers approved a transportation plan in 2010. He did not address Johnston’s criticism about the sweeps.

Public safety

Kirk Thompson, director of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, told the committee that the agency has had trouble retaining and recruiting personnel. He requested that lawmakers approve more funding to fix this.

Thompson testified that the KBI has been able to fill only 56 percent of its special agent vacancies since 2013. He said the starting salary for a KBI special agent is more than $26,000 below the national median wage for detectives of $76,780. The agency also has seen significant turnover among crime analysts and forensic scientists, who are paid significantly less by the KBI than their peers, according to Thompson.

The KBI is requesting about $1.6 million to pay for salary increases and overtime pay for personnel.

Asked about Thompson’s testimony, the governor’s office said in an e-mail that the “safety of Kansans remains a top priority for the Governor. Funding for KBI increased by almost $9 million between Fiscal Year 2012 and Fiscal Year 2017.”

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